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My Turn: Never Far From Home

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December 2007
My Turn: Never Far From Home

Emirates Business Class. That is how I got here. And it quite succinctly describes what my life has been like so far. I grew up in Dubai in the Middle East and like most kids there, I was spoiled silly. Adding to the extravagant Arab lifestyle, I was Daddy’s girl and he made it seem like his life’s ambition to keep me happy. Once I finished high school, I was shipped off to Mumbai to be toughened up. Fortunately for me, I was made to live with my grandmother who doted on me. So when the time came for me to move to the United States to go to graduate school, there was much speculation on how I would look after myself. After all, I was the spoiled brat who would squirm in ignorance every time her grandfather asked her to make him a cup of tea. Indeed, aunts made bets on how many months before I came running back, my grandmother only bought me a teensy pressure cooker because she thought my diet would be centered around pizzas, and my mother refused to buy me new clothes because she was sure that I would grow fat and/or ruin the clothes while doing laundry.

Every person who has left home to move to a new country has one image burned into memory: his or her friends and family saying goodbye at the airport. I believe that no matter how long it has been since leaving home, this image will always be with me.

Once I had picked Georgia Tech to do my master’s, my grandfather began examining his mental family tree to ascertain how many relatives we had around Atlanta and on the East Coast, and my dad looked up old friends in U.S. Once I got here, I was touched and amazed by how distant relatives took me into their homes and made me feel like a part of their family. ‘Friends of friends’ that I had never met and whose existence I was barely aware of began to look after me and worried whether I was eating right or not. My American apartment mates were amused when I told them that I was spending Labor Day Weekend with my ‘mother’s brother’s wife’s sister’s mother-in-law’s brother’ and they were completely baffled when I referred to him as ‘uncle’.

Living in India, I saw a lot of tension and competition amongst fellow Indians, especially in Mumbai where each day is a constant battle for life, space, power and money. And so I have a high regard for the kinship I have seen in the Indian community here. I have also never felt quite as patriotic. When an American-born Indian friend referred to India as a ‘third-world country’, I cringed, although a few months ago I probably felt the same way.

My friends who had moved to the States or Canada before me would always tell me that the besides their parents the one person they miss the most is their kaamwali bai (maidservant). I’ve had a long distance relationship with my parents for the past four years, so I’m used to living without them. And as for the kaamwali bai, it took me about a week to realize that cooking and laundry isn’t exactly rocket science. Having set off the fire alarm only once, I have now learnt to make vegetable pulav and dal makhani. Although my mom and grandmother would probably refuse to eat my preparations, I’m sure that they are quite proud.

Since coming here I have often mulled over why Indians leave their homes and move so far away. My ‘uncle’ says that it’s because of the amazing opportunities and the kind of lifestyle America offers. But at this point, I really don’t think it’s worth it. Of all the things that I have given up to be here—the home cooked meals, roadside food, the pampering, being with my family—what I miss most is the sense of belonging. On a Mumbai street, I could shout ‘Jai Maharashtra’ or ‘Sachin Tendulkar’ or ‘Vada Pav’ and everyone would know what I was talking about, besides thinking I was a complete lunatic. I miss the feeling of being in a city that I thought of as not just my own, but one that allowed me to feel like I owned it.

By Amisha Manek


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